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CDC director: 'Doing everything we can' to distribute flu vaccine

Dr. Julie Gerberding
Dr. Julie Gerberding

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A severe and early flu season is prompting many Americans to rush to get flu vaccines. Health officials said the illness is particularly lethal this year, especially in Colorado, where eight children with the disease have died.

Some regions have reported vaccine shortages, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would work with the manufacturers, state health departments and others to assess the vaccine supply. CNN's Soledad O'Brien discussed the outbreak Monday with the CDC director, Dr. Julie Gerberding.

O'BRIEN: Is it fair to say -- with 6,300 people infected and eight deaths so far -- is it fair to call this an epidemic?

GERBERDING: Well, we are experiencing a flu epidemic, but I think the important thing is that we still do have vaccine out there and for those people who are at highest risk from the complications of influenza, they need to get persistent about finding it. We're doing everything we can to help redistribute the vaccine that is available to protect those people.

O'BRIEN: The only two manufacturers of this vaccine say they've run out. So that doesn't mean that if you haven't gotten a flu shot, you're out of luck.

GERBERDING: No, the vaccine manufacturers may have sold all of their vaccine, but there still is vaccine available in many communities.

O'BRIEN: There's something called FluMist, I understand it's like a nasal spray. Is it as good as a flu shot?

GERBERDING: The FluMist is a good vaccine and it is especially good for people between the ages of five and 49. So healthy people who aren't at risk for the serious complications of flu -- but still want to protect themselves -- can get the FluMist and we do have supplies of that.

The vaccine shot is something that is indicated for those who are at high risk for complications -- that would be people over 65, people with any kind of chronic medical condition and especially children between the ages of six months and 23 months who are at risk for hospitalization or serious flu complications.

O'BRIEN: The flu shot and the FluMist -- neither of these actually protect against the specific strain of flu that we're seeing this season. Do they go any distance at all in helping to protect people?

A flu shot is recommended for those at risk for complications, such as people over 65 and people with chronic medical conditions.
A flu shot is recommended for those at risk for complications, such as people over 65 and people with chronic medical conditions.

GERBERDING: Absolutely. The strain of flu that's most common right now at this point in the season is the H3N2 Fujian strain and that's not in the vaccine, but it's very close to one of the strains that is in the vaccine. And our experience in the past -- where we've had this kind of situation -- is that the vaccine will still provide protection. It might not be perfect, but it will protect people.

O'BRIEN: So the severity that we're seeing now -- the epidemic proportions as you call it -- is this because of this new strain?

GERBERDING: Well flu is a very unpredictable illness and with other strains we've seen patterns like this in the past. But the H3N2 strains in general can cause more severe flu and that's one of the reasons why we worked hard to get so many people vaccinated early in the season.

If there's any good new in all of this, it is that we have probably immunized a lot more people than we normally would at this time of the year.

O'BRIEN: What is your biggest concern right now? Are you worried that people will panic when they hear there's no flu vaccine?

GERBERDING: Well I hope people don't panic because there are still things that we can do to help get those who need the vaccine the most get it. But in addition there are things that people can do to help protect themselves. In particular, if you have a fever and flu-like illness, you probably should stay home or keep your children home so that you don't serve as a source of infection to others.

But in addition, covering your nose when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands, just practice good respiratory hygiene. Those measures really can help against flu and against many of the other respiratory illnesses that we see this time of year.

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